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Finding Claire

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It was Emerson who’d said that once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall the decision that had led me here.

Autumn was a beautiful time of year in the Scottish Highlands. The more vibrant tones of the sparse foliage contrasted against the craggy peaks that jutted toward the heavens, and the mountains seemed to tower over us at dizzying heights as we traveled the winding roads through each valley and pass. Of course, that visual effect was moderately dependent upon the presence of the sun, which was rather rare in the Highlands, especially as winter crept closer. Equally rare were my moments of peace these last five years or so.

After spending the better part of those years in a near-constant atmosphere of chaos, I’d craved peace and silence even more than I’d longed for my husband’s embrace. Life, it seemed, had an odd way of granting wishes.

“And that peak, there, is Cocknammon Rock. Because it looks like a cock’s tail, you see. It commands the high ground from every direction, so in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the army often used it to ambush Scottish rebels and brigands,” Frank narrated as we passed the landmark.

It was indeed a rather eye-catching convergence of earth and rock, starkly juxtaposed against the azure sky, but I’d have thought a company of redcoats should’ve been rather conspicuous on the barren hilltop.

Rather than listen to the radio or engage in conversation with me, my husband had been keeping a running commentary on everything we passed that had any historical significance. I absorbed every word in silence, acknowledging him with the occasional nod and mentally filing the information away in case he should question me on it later.

I did my damndest to keep a straight face despite my inward disapproval of the Scots having been ambushed while traveling across their own lands. There were many aspects of England’s history that made me mildly embarrassed to call myself British, and the treatment of the Scottish people was high on that list. As he droned on about the sorts of people the British army had dutifully apprehended, I kept my hands clasped tightly in my lap and ignored the stiffness in my spine. Spending hours at a time in such close quarters with Frank took a toll on my muscles.

A little over six years ago, we’d gotten married and enjoyed a very brief honeymoon in the Highlands, and when he’d announced we would be going back, I’d foolishly thought he was being romantic. I should have known better. His choice of destination had been solely due to the local resources available to support his research into his family tree, specifically the branch of it that had flourished against the backdrop of the Jacobite rebellion.

We’d taken the train up to Edinburgh, but the last leg of the journey to Inverness was a meandering route through the countryside by car. Frank seemed determined to cram as much Highland experience as possible into our two-week stay. I tilted my head cautiously to ease the tension in my neck and forced myself to focus on the next point of interest in Frank’s guided tour.

“We’ll return in a day or two for a closer look,” he assured me as we passed the battlefield on Culloden moor. “Perhaps I could unwittingly stand upon the same patch of earth where my ancestor fell.”

Though I certainly had no desire to do any such thing, I nodded my outward approval of the plan and of the ancestor who was holding Frank’s interest at the moment. Jonathan Wolverton Randall had been an eighteenth-century British officer who had died in battle at the end of the last Jacobite rebellion.

Too bad the man managed to have a child before his untimely end.

I hastily turned my head toward the window to hide my face, lest Frank see the thought displayed there. My features were constantly betraying me, revealing nearly everything that should be private and sacred. It was a flaw that had brought me more than a little pain in recent months.

When we finally reached the city of Inverness, Frank’s pedantic lecture on Highland historical landmarks transitioned into a verbal compendium of Scottish customs pertaining to religious and pagan rituals. Blood on the lintels for Samhain, he explained, was just one of the odd traditions they still kept about their homes, even from the time they were constructed. From burying an offering of sorts in the foundation to pissing on the gatepost to ward off malicious spirits… On and on it went.

I listened to every word with a diligence to rival the most prodigious of scholars and let not a single syllable pass my lips.

Frank used to appreciate that I was educated and intelligent. It was what had first drawn us together when he’d approached my uncle in the course of his academic research. We’d spent long hours in spirited debate over various topics, and he had praised both my character and my courage when I’d joined the British Army as a war nurse.

The bloody fucking war.

We’d seen each other a grand total of ten days during the five years the war had kept us apart, and I hadn’t been prepared for the consequences to our relationship. I’d heard dozens of stories about men who’d seen the horrors of combat and never been the same again. To the best of my knowledge, Frank had never been out of the Intelligence offices, much less on the front lines, but the war had bloody well changed him, nevertheless. Or perhaps it was simply easier for me to blame the war for the turn our marriage had taken. In my heart, I knew there had been troubling signs I’d missed or ignored in the beginning, and my anger toward myself was growing stronger by the day.

I chanced a peek at him as he focused on maneuvering the car down a steep incline. He still looked like the man I’d married, with his lithe, athletic build and aristocratically handsome features. But his hazel eyes had lost their warmth, and the mouth I’d once thought to be soft and sensitive was now pinched with disdain.

His personality had suffered a far more devastating change. The post-war version of my husband seemed to take any show of my intellect or autonomy as a personal affront to his manhood. Since our reunion six months ago, Frank had gone to great lengths to groom me into the sort of wife he wanted: obedient, faithful, and silent. He now felt he’d let me have too much independence by allowing me to join the army, apparently forgetting I hadn’t asked his permission in the first place. The fact that I’d seen the horrors of battle in a way Frank had not was emasculating, or so his peers had pointed out on more than one occasion.

Now that the war was over, he was determined to see that I knew my ‘proper place.’

My head was aching by the time Frank pulled our hired car to a stop outside of a quaint little inn on the high street. I took a much-needed breath of fresh mountain air as I stepped onto the sidewalk. The autumn chill centered me somewhat, but I didn’t dare allow myself to relax. Schooling my expression into the placid, contented smile I was expected to wear in public, I followed my husband across the cobbled street and into the gray stone-and-mortar building that served as Mrs. Baird’s Bed and Breakfast.

Mrs. Baird, it transpired, was an affable, middle-aged woman who welcomed us with the eager smile of an innkeeper who’d struggled with the temporary collapse of the tourism industry. As I stood quietly behind him, Frank signed the register and paid the fee for our room, ignoring my presence completely and making small talk about the upcoming Samhain festivities. Mrs. Baird seemed pleasantly surprised to hear an Englishman speak so knowledgeably about Scottish customs and history.

“Are ye a professor, then, Mr. Randall?”

“Soon to be, yes. I’ve just accepted a post at Oxford.”

“Ah, so this is a last holiday before settling down to work-a-day life again,” she surmised, shooting a smile in my direction in a courteous attempt to include me in the conversation.

Frank made no such effort.

“Something like that,” he replied. “I’m in the Highlands to do some genealogical research while I still have the flexibility in my schedule.”

Mrs. Baird offered a hum and a smile of polite interest, but her solicitous gaze flickered to me a few more times. I gave her a slight nod before lowering my chin in embarrassment. I could only imagine what the woman must have been thinking--the same thing I myself would’ve been thinking in her place. I’d have been concerned for any woman, stranger or not, who looked the way I did.

I would’ve studied the woman’s face as Mrs. Baird was now studying mine, and I’d probably have been able to make out the fading bruise that couldn’t quite be concealed by cosmetics and a strategic hairstyle. I would’ve noted the way her prim and perfect clothing mocked her defeated posture and the way she endeavored to stand just beyond the reach of her husband’s arm...

My eyes met Mrs. Baird’s again for the briefest of moments, and something within me clenched at the familiar hint of pity in her expression. The poor lady would likely be feeling a great deal more of that if her ears were as curious and probing as her eyes.

To my relief, Mrs. Baird was suddenly more eager to dispense with the cordialities, and she bustled us about the place, guiding us through the dining room, a small parlor, the main lavatory, and finally to our room. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her again as she left me alone with my husband.

Once the door was shut, Frank moved to the window and recommenced his monologue. Jesus. H. Roosevelt Christ, the man did enjoy the sound of his own voice. The effort it took to keep from rolling my eyes was exhausting.

Nonetheless, I listened intently as I did a quick evaluation of the charming little room. It was clean and tastefully furnished, even if the busy floral wallpaper did make me a bit claustrophobic. Whoever had come up with the notion that printed flowers on the wall made one feel less confined had probably never spent much time outdoors.

I wasted no time in seeing to the unpacking, dutifully transferring each of Frank’s suits from his luggage to the small closet and smoothing the wrinkles from them as best I could without an iron. I stowed most of my own clothing in the polished mahogany bureau, careful not to turn my back to him. But he didn’t so much as glance my direction as he laid out his plans for our time in the Highlands.

In addition to visiting as many historical sites as possible, he also intended to spend time combing through local archives and making some acquaintances at the pub just down the street. He’d already been in contact with one of the local vicars, a Reverend Wakefield, who was rumored to have a collection of Highland historical documents and artifacts to rival a small museum.

I flinched as Frank turned suddenly away from the window and appraised the neatness of his row of suits, giving them a satisfied nod. He crossed the room to where I stood, and I tensed involuntarily. But he merely pressed his lips to my forehead in a cursory fashion and turned his attention to his various notebooks.

It was the closest thing to praise or gratitude I was likely to ever get from him, and I no longer bothered to hope for more.

We took our supper in the pub that evening, and the jolly atmosphere couldn’t quite penetrate my ever-present cloak of anxiety. I was once again ignored by my husband in favor of the company of strangers, but I felt relieved rather than offended by his rudeness. I poked dispassionately at my plate of herring, which was the most economic regional source of protein at present, and stifled every wry comment that entered my mind about the monotony of the meal. After surviving years on war rations and the rubbish the army had pretended was food, I could certainly survive a couple weeks’ worth of herring.

We did indeed meet the Reverend Reginald Wakefield as well as a few other men who shared Frank’s interest in the Jacobite rebellions. Or more specifically, ‘the Forty-Five,’ for it had begun in 1745. At first, however, they seemed slightly reluctant to entertain much in the way of discussion with him, and when I heard someone mutter, ‘Sassenachs,’ in our direction, I assumed their hesitation was due to the blatant English-ness that seemed to hover about Frank. It was similar to the way the tobacco smoke clung to so many of the other patrons. The acrid scent of it had begun to make my eyes sting, but I kept silent about it. And about everything else, for that matter.

I knew full well that I was really only there to keep up appearances. Parading me about like a hunting trophy elevated his status among other men, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed my company. If Frank could have kept me stashed at the inn for the whole trip without stirring gossip, he’d have done precisely that. Nevertheless, I kept my guard up and my ears open, paying careful attention to the conversations around me in the event that Frank wanted me to repeat something back to him later. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

“Ye look a wee bit scunnered, lassie. Might I buy ye a drink whilst your man is occupied?”

I turned toward the voice and found a man of about Frank’s age smiling congenially at me from the next table. He was fair-haired with a moderately freckled complexion and an easy-going demeanor. My muscles tensed warily, seeing the flirtatious gleam in his green eyes.

“I’m sorry… Scunnered?” I inquired, endeavoring to maintain the same tranquil smile I’d given everyone else. The man looked only mildly surprised by my accent.

“Och, bored, I should say. I dinna think I’ve seen ye speak a word to anyone since ye came in.”

My smile became somewhat apologetic as I acknowledged his observation with a slight tilt of my head toward my distracted spouse. “Thank you for the offer, but I fear I must decline.”

Fortunately, the man caught my subtle glance in Frank’s direction and didn’t press the matter, turning back to his companions with a shrug. I released the breath I’d been holding and was relieved that Frank hadn’t seemed to notice my momentary distraction. Still, the man’s words echoed in my mind as the evening went on.

Experience had taught me to speak no more than absolutely necessary, as that was typically how I got myself into trouble. Heaven forbid I voiced an opinion contrary to my husband or to society’s expectations. I might have even let slip some rather unladylike cursing. Some all-but-lost part of me chuckled weakly at the thought. Frank used to find that sort of behavior amusing.

But he wasn’t that man anymore.

Hours later, I found myself lying in the metal-framed bed at the inn, watching the shadows dance on the ceiling overhead. Floating on a sizable quantity of whisky, Frank had been just sober enough to require a fulfillment of my ‘wifely duties’ before he’d passed out. He was slumbering quietly next to me now, but I still couldn’t bring myself to relax completely in his presence, conscious or not.

For months now, every instinct I possessed had been telling me to leave him, to run as far from him as possible and never turn back. I knew he could sense it, as he rarely let me out of his sight for long enough to form any plan of escape, much less execute one. At this point, my only hope was that his new position at Oxford would force him to leave me alone in our flat during the day. I would be expected to see to the housekeeping and, Frank hoped, childrearing while he was out.

Since our reunion, he’d been particularly voracious in his efforts to start a family, as though impregnating me would salvage the masculinity he believed he’d lost by ‘allowing’ me to go to war. Each time my courses made their reappearance, Frank had taken a savage sort of pleasure in blaming me for the deficiency, and I invariably ended up with a new bruise or two.

Nevertheless, I thanked God each time I recognized the familiar cramping of my womb, feeling nothing but gratitude for my body’s apparent refusal to conceive.

It wasn’t that I objected to the concept of motherhood on principle, but the idea of bringing a baby into this situation was abhorrent on multiple levels. A child would irrevocably tie me to Frank, which was the last thing I wanted. Nor could I bear the thought that he might someday raise a hand to our child as he so frequently raised them to me these days. I knew my cycle well enough to know when to avoid intercourse, but Frank didn’t always allow my abstinence. Claiming illness or simply saying no did not deter him.

A sudden gust of wind interrupted my contemplations, drawing my gaze toward the darkened window pane. A handful of autumn leaves rustled briefly against the glass before the wind swept them away, and I felt an intense desire to be among them. What might it be like to simply drift away from all I knew and abandon the travesty my life had become?

It was a sweet dream, though likely an impossible one.

My chest tightened with longing as I tried to imagine, for what must have been the hundredth time, how I might be able to escape him. People disappeared all the time, but logically speaking, they did disappear to somewhere. Where could I go? Would he ever stop looking for me? I glanced involuntarily at Frank’s face where it rested upon the pillow next to mine, and my blood chilled all the way to my toes.

His dark eyes were open and fixed upon me, and his cold expression was just shy of a sneer. It was as though he knew precisely what I’d just been thinking. Perhaps he did. More than one person had delighted in telling me how ridiculously easy I was to read. Our gazes held for an endless moment, and my body was stiff with fear, utterly exposed and vulnerable.

It wasn’t until his hand moved slowly upward to cup my throat that I began to tremble in earnest.

He applied no pressure, and his expression never wavered, save for a slight twist of his lips. He allowed his thumb to trace my jaw in a way that would have looked casual to anyone watching, but I could feel the threat his touch implied. I closed my eyes, silently begging him to stop. To transform back into the kind, affectionate man I’d married. And to my surprise, his hand vanished. Apparently, he’d intended nothing more than to frighten me… to remind me of my place. I lay awake and shaking with silent tears long after Frank had rolled over and gone back to sleep.

Stand down, Beauchamp. That kind of thinking will get you killed.

A/N: This is my first time dipping my toes into this fandom, so please be gentle. Most of my other works can be found here. And my original novels are here. This story will be cross-posted on my wordpress site and, as always, will be updated regularly until the end. I usually update 2-3 times a week, depending on the length of the chapters and reader interest. All kudos and comments are much appreciated! <3